John Maloof, Accidental Archivist


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John Maloof (’05) transformed his life for $400 at an auction. In 2007, the former Columbia College Chicago product design student outbid other buyers, sight unseen, for a box of 30,000 photo negatives. He hoped to score some black-and-white stills to illustrate a book he co-authored about Portage Park, his Chicago neighborhood.

He got so much more.

The box contained the work of North Shore nanny Vivian Maier, who documented everyday street scenes in 1950s and ’60s Chicago. She never published her work and told few people about her passion.

Maloof, then a top real estate agent for Century 21, didn’t fully comprehend the significance of his discovery. But Maier mesmerized him, and his journey to uncover the woman’s story led to an unexpected path in his own artistic life—as a photographer, documentary filmmaker, and curator of Maier’s now-internationally acclaimed work.

Over the past six years, Maloof has traced Maier’s life, talking to more than 90 people who knew the nanny behind the camera. She kept piles of boxes of negatives and audiotapes, and books stuffed with newspaper clippings. “She was an odd person,” Maloof says. “Very private. Always disappearing. All the stories were consistent about her being something of a recluse.” (Maier died in 2009, before receiving critical acclaim.)

Fascinated by Maier’s craft, Maloof educated himself about photography techniques. “I didn’t even know what street photography was when I purchased [the negatives],” Maloof says. “I studied a lot of photography and read a lot of books so that I really understood.” He talked to experts about Maier’s ability to capture subjects in the most intimate ways, as if she wasn’t even there holding a camera. Critics say her work rivals some of the greatest street photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus.
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Maloof discovered other boxes of Maier’s work and bought as much of the collection as he could. He owns about 100,000 photos, 3,000 vintage prints, film rolls, audiotapes, clothing, and trinkets—about 90 percent of Maier’s catalog—now known as the Maloof Collection.

Archiving, promoting, and preserving Maier’s work is Maloof’s full-time job. He has exhibited Maier’s photography across the United States and Europe in cities such as New York, London, Paris, and Chicago, including a critically acclaimed show at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2010. He published a book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, in 2011.

Maloof’s latest—and most ambitious—project: producing and directing a documentary film about the life and work of his muse. To secure film funding, Maloof turned to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. Launched in December 2010, the campaign was a massive success, raising $105,042—more than five times the $20,000 goal—from nearly 1,500 backers in three months. The campaign caught the attention of actor Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs), who helped arrange the first gallery exhibition of Maier’s work in Los Angeles.

Maloof partnered with Chicagoan Charlie Siskel, nephew of legendary film critic Gene Siskel, to co-direct the film, and comedian Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) signed on as executive producer. Finding Vivian Maier premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September, and IFC purchased the film’s domestic rights.

But after six years of working to tell the story of Vivian Maier in a way she would appreciate—that is, not overhyped—Maloof, who will continue to oversee Maier’s estate, is ready to move on to other projects.

“I’m a photographer and now a filmmaker,” Maloof says, hinting that he has some ideas brewing for a new documentary. But, perhaps because of Maier’s influence, he wants to keep those details to himself.

By Andrew Greiner (BA ’05)
Photos by Jacob Boll (BA ’12)